The Color of Time

painter

A painter stands before a canvas in a studio warmed by a dying fire. Shifts one foot to the other under an old denim apron and a panoply of colorful mistakes, sensing more than seeing that something’s not right. Not wrong—just not quite right.

Dabbed and daubed, speared and smeared, the dancing figures shift and twist in their vivid world. The studio dissolves; the painter disappears. The dance goes on in spite of it all.

The painter steps back…absorbs, surveys. The studio reappears; dusty mote-swirls give abject approval, and an old grandfather clock in the corner proclaims the time at almost half-past four, as it has for the last thirty years. Only the keenest ear can hear the fantasy chimes.

The painter leans in to adjust an angle, to caress a color into being. And uncovers further imperfections invisible to the untrained eye.

Dips and dashes, swipes and wipes, and again—the dancers move. Another step in time with the music, whirling around in oil-soaked splendor. A few more flecks adorn the apron.

A gossamer spiderweb softens the corner of a rafter. Soot-streaked windows block out the world. A curl of blue fluffs out the woman’s dress until the painter edges it back with a fingernail. Somewhere behind the walls, a mouse scuttles to safety.

Mouth set in a grim line, the painter peers at the scene. Feels like a voyeur, and thrills at the thought. Jabs without mercy, and slashes a shadow to change the lighting. A glob of violet joins a scattered rainbow on the time-scarred oak-plank floor.

Again, a rest. Appraisal. An inquisitive tongue pokes out from the corner of dry lips to inspect, and likes what it sees. But if only…

Another furious adjustment. More lines, fewer lines, deeper shadows, brighter light, tapping toes, graceful fingers, blowing hair—

The music. Never. Stops.

Rain patters at the windows, trying to see inside. A peal of thunder like a hungry growl rolls over the shingled roof. A bucket catches rogue raindrops that have succeeded in getting past the studio’s defenses. And the dance continues.

But something is still not right! The painter scoops some scarlet—a knee is bent. Brushes some brown—an elbow crooks. Scrapes cerulean—the dress swirls. And the cadence…the cadence…the cadence…

Exhilarated and bemused, disappointed and fatigued, the artist succumbs to the beckon of a wing-back chair. Without bothering to doff the spattered apron, collapses into the soft leather, scuffed and strained; tattered and tired, but alive, alive, alive. Eyelids droop in the enveloping whisper of rain on the roof.

Suddenly up! A mad dash to the canvas, and knobby knees nearly knock the dancers to the floor as the painter streaks a flourish of motion, and the dance returns to life. The abandoned chair puffs up indignantly, never one to approve of abrupt haste. Wrapped in dreamy remnants, the painter trowels teal and glops grey. A knife cuts capers, and the dancers sway. Shining smiles replace concentrating frowns, and the dance changes with each stubborn stroke; active, alive.

With jealous zeal, the artist creates some space between the pair. Lavishes attention on one and blurs the expression of the other. But no! that isn’t right either. Another flurry, and the man reacts with fervor, swinging his laughing lady around and around. The nosy tongue returns to its place at the corner of chapped lips and applauds with a low whistle. Time loses meaning, and the music plays on.

Outside, barely noticed, the storm murmurs and dwindles. Steam rises, bearing a message of endless energy and nonstop melody. Twilight comes and goes past hazy windows. One by one, though the painter cannot see them, the stars poke through to catch a glimpse of the untiring tarantella.

More paint—and more! Layer upon layer of twirling spinning laughing grinning, and through it all, the meter. One–two–three, one–two–three…

Frantic fingers fix and add, move and smooth, trying to stay in time.

But weary.
Aching.
Trying to hold a brush, direct a line, add an angle.
And then, just at the point of collapse, the music takes over.

The painter slumps, reddened eyes wide: the dance continues! No brush, no blade now guides this rhythmic swirl.

Half stands. Shaky fingers falter, held up and examined in wonder. Eyes trail back and forth across the canvas. Mouth left open mid-gasp. Brows knit, and hands tremble.

The painter collapses once more into the chair, heavy with fatigue. Struggles and fails to keep eyelids open. Fades away, finally finished.

And still the lovers dance on.

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Model of Life

model-of-life

It’s midnight…or something like it. A breeze whistles up and around the balcony high above laser streaks of headlights all herding through intersections. Stop and go, ushered anonymously past stop lights and sidewalks; a crawling luminescence. If you stood here long enough and squinted, you could probably figure out the algorithms…or at least the timing.

From this height, angry horns sound muted and trifling. The trash problem has been reduced to dust. Even graffiti looks neat and unthreatening.

​The balcony is a good place, a bastion of perspective over productivity’s lime-encrusted drain. From here architecture seems simple and subdued. Concrete is smooth and toned. From here headlines are illegible and advertisements are aimed elsewhere. The atherosclerotic core of the American Dream still appears charming and xenophilic from this height. I stretch my shoulders, flex my back. Horatio Alger never dug ditches.

Venetian blinds rustle behind me.
“Do you want like…a robe or something?”
​The breeze tousles my hair as I turn. Goosebumps ripple across my bare skin. A delightful shiver snakes my spine.
She glances down, and I cross my hands like a fig leaf. “Hey,” I scold, “I’m on break here.”
“But you’re still naked. It’s cold.”
“Cold, please. I grew up in the Midwest.”
“It’s time to come back in anyway: break’s up.”

​Inside on a low end-table, an ambitious stack of blank sketch paper, a box full of soft-vine charcoal sticks in various states of shatter and crumble. A vigorous Miles Davis warbles from the turntable, and she gestures that I should lift the needle to silence the record; her fingertips are smudged black.

​For an artist, she keeps her studio surprisingly neat. Where you’d expect to see piles of easels and drawing boards, there are flowers and potted plants. Where you’d shove aside dogeared and gray-fingerprinted volumes of Anatomy for Artists, there are tables and chairs wiped clean. The book itself sprawls on an old oak dictionary stand against the wall. Its pages are dogeared and gray-fingerprinted. But there’s no film of pastel dust or shavings of heavy metals and linseed oil coating every surface—instead a vacuum crouches in the corner, almost invisible like a good Victorian butler in his alcove.
`
​The walls are festooned with portraits and profiles—but none her own. Her Study of Influence. Her own work either gets sold for five figures or mulched into her next batch of homemade paper. Except for the sketchbooks—but no one sees those. No, the work on the walls is strictly amateur—though some of it is very good. One, a three-quarter profile of the artist herself, is mine. Somewhere, pulped, blended, and pressed into several of her other pieces, is its opposite; a tense, hunched-over figure of me sketching her. Posing for her Study of Study.

​When I find myself distracted or straining to keep a pose, I often focus on that microcosmic rectangle of wall, stepping outside myself to critique it objectively. The figure is relaxed but energetic. Not too literal. Nice, even line work. Strong shading and lush curves.

​It’s pretty decent.

​She’s an oddball, this artist, with her high-rise spartan studio standing in mad contrast to her sprawling California contemporary in the hills. She’s a daughter of dot-com money, though her daddy would be the first to assert she eschewed the trappings of wealth whenever she could, except when it came to her artsy education. But she did allow him to lavish her with the house for her first marriage. The studio, of course, pays for itself.

Two wine-stained tumblers and a charred opium pipe watch from the table as she settles onto her bench and stabs a few perspective lines before I’ve even settled myself into a pose.

​“No,” she says, shaking her head. “Nah, that pose is too lax. Give me something more heroic.”

And here I am trying not to make it obvious that I’m flexing my glutes for her benefit. I lift my chin and chest, shoulders back and one foot forward, staring at a point vaguely heavenward.

“How’s this?”
“Better,” she nods, tongue poking from the corner of her mouth in concentration. Her hand and arm dart across the page with enthusiasm. She’s probably going for irony. I would say she usually does, but it’s difficult to tell…

It’s funny how twenty minutes turns out to be an eternity, absent the dynamic of movement—even within the first sixty seconds of standing still. The only sounds are the whick-whock of an antique timepiece and the whisper of charcoal on rough paper.

​There are sixty seconds in a minute. Six hundred in ten. One thousand, two hundred seconds in this pose. One at a time, each, with space in between. Whick-whock. Count to one hundred. Count to one hundred. Again. Again.

​The room temperature is exactly neutral. Skin loses touch. The mind wanders, finding itself far afield without a body as anchor. Who lived in this studio before it became hers? What bustle and stress? How much laughter? Shades of history, ghosts of domestic timelines, a whisper of households past…

Muscles start shaking, informing the model he’s chosen too ambitious a pose for twenty minutes. But it’s too late to shift. The shadows are cast. It’s a mental game now—against whick-whock and pulse; blood screaming for release, lactic acid preparing for a flood. The noisy clock, she says, is to keep her movements brief and pointed, to guide her rhythm away from careful deliberation, and into the effective realm of jazzy motion.

The careful artist, she says, teaches elementary school.

Wrapped in a blanket of opium like a silk scarf while dancing, she sweeps and thumbs, rubs and hums, talking to herself and contributing her own out-loud critique as if she were alone. She is alone. I am no longer here. I’ve been reduced to shapes, to deltoid ovals and scapula sweeps, to rib ridges and patella shadows. I’ve become the slow vibration of life itself, unfettered by identity or soul or outline; consciousness replaced by pure form.

Stilled life.
Essence.
The effect is diminishing and exhilarating, distracting from the ache of immobility and transcending the tremor of muscle fatigue. I’ve lost count of the pendulum swings.

A light pulse flicks at her throat as she looks up. “Hold this pose for another while,” she says. I nod imperceptibly, breathing deep through flared nostrils and masking the effort. Her robe has fallen slightly open, drawing shadows toward her belly. The upside-down ∆ tattooed under her collarbone points the way. A wave of sensation passes over me, prickling skin and thumping chest, sending blood southward. I squeeze my eyes shut to block out the image—but then all I can picture are the tiny barbells through her nipples, the smooth skin arcing downward, the unholy triangle below. I open my eyes and focus on a prickly cactus in the corner, but try as I might, there is no stopping the course of nature.

​Only a slight arch of an eyebrow indicates her notice. “This isn’t intended as erotic portraiture,” she says.
“Sorry.”
She sighs.
“Though I suppose it could be. Nothing gets an old collector wetter than suggestive imagery.” She brushes a strand of hair back from her forehead, leaving a sooty streak in its place.
“Keep talking like that.”
“Like what?”
“Feigned uninterest. It’s exciting.”
“Feigned, huh?” She stands and swings a smooth leg over the bench, gliding toward the table. The hem of her robe flirts with her gluteal sulcus, and the sheer material hugs her shadows as if afraid to let go, as she leans over the pipe and thumbs a smudged butane lighter.

A pale curl of smoke drifts from a gem-studded nostril as she straightens and smiles, holding her breath without strain. Most of my clients are not this dazzling.

She crooks a finger, and I break the pose.

The clock’s beat punctuates the hush at the end of the record, and the pipe is cold once again. Half my body is asleep, propped up by the rest. The scratch of charcoal indicates she’s taken advantage of my nodding off to work on her Study of Repose, and I feel vaguely used. Her previous sketch lies crumpled on the floor, heroically stained and stiff now. A smear of charcoal dried to a film spreads across my lower belly. I imagine there are little oval smudges on my back. I wonder if that shade will make it onto her new sketch.

“Don’t move,” she hisses, and then sighs. “Gah, that’s it. The natural state is shattered. You’re awake.”
“Sorry.” I seem to apologize a lot to this one.
“That’s okay,” she says. “You can get dressed. I’m not drawing well today anyway. It’s not you; it’s me.” She smiles.

She hands me a check as I pull on my jeans, and escorts me to the door. “See you next week.”

Life Lived

scuba-diver

With any luck it’s a cool fall day. A breeze tumbles freshly fallen leaves, hush across the hillside. Overgrown grass goes to seed under a light mist hanging over the land like smoke in a wine glass. If tears fall, they fall toward smiles and wan laughter. Though I have died, remember the good times, the joy, the unremitting humor of life.

With any luck it’s a cool fall day, but if it’s not, that changes nothing. If it’s winter, and snowdrifts heap under billowing knife-edged blusters, wrap up in a few layers. The mulled cider and the coffee will be hot, but it’s still best to be fully prepared for the weather.

If it’s summer, I hope at least two people are brave enough to dance naked, toes in the grass. If not, so be it: I’ll be there in spirit, cavorting clothesless, and now there’s nothing anyone can do to stop me. For those of you who knew me, you know I loved to push boundaries. For those of you who didn’t, welcome!…what the hell are you doing here?

With any luck though, it’s a cool fall day. There’s often an air of regret surrounding birthday deaths—but I find them immensely poetic. A full circle of life. A return. A revolution on the ever-spinning wheel. With any luck today is the fourth of October.

Listen! The conversations, the buzz of connection, the gathering of consciousness, the spirit of the group. What a dynamic, an ebb and flow of energy, a tangible pattern of sound and feeling. People gathered, people telling stories; recreating my life like a slideshow, from many angles.

Remember in high-school track when he got hit by a shot put?
Remember when he kissed a shark?
Remember when he was arrested?
When he saved my life?
Remember when he made me cry?
Made me laugh?
Made me scream?
Remember all the times I was alone with him?
When I loved him?

It doesn’t even matter if they’re stories about me. What matters is only the event that brought so many people together to share experiences, to meld and mingle, to share and cherish. There’s no dogma allowed in this ritual—that’s the only ironclad rule. This is a happy day, a day of love and unity, a day of remembrance without regret. This is a celebration, sadness without misery, longing without jealousy.

With any luck it’s a cool fall day, a day for reflecting on the fullness of life, the absurdity and the mystery that we all share, regardless of achievement or material gain. Think about it! We all rot toward the same basic stuff. We’re all just patterns of molecules gathered together for some reason. Once that is known and understood, it tends to change things.

This story is in medias res, and no matter the ending, there is always more. A period lies. An ellipsis tells a closer truth. So take a sip of your chosen potation. Raise your glass to ever-afters. Make a toast to whatever comes to mind. Because though that is my body up there, I’m not finished with this world. Not yet. So make the most of it.

My body lies up there on a platform of wood—at least ten varieties. Built by cooperation, built with love and good cheer. Built with craftsmanship, but also accessibility. Built in as many different styles as will fit, dovetails alongside box nails. It’s just going to burn anyway.

It’s tall enough to rise above…whatever, but not so elevated that I’m not visible up there in repose. If my successes have been sufficient, a gold coin sits on each eye, ironic tribute to the boatman. Otherwise let my gaze stare in wonder and always look for Why.

Below the bier, a pungent pile of brush—sage, scotch pine, birchbark—soaked in a plethora of flammables, each substance with its own meaning. Kerosene for history, white gas for camping, gasoline for road trips, olive oil for mealtime. It’s on a hill, overlooking a spread of wood or field or water. Permits have been drafted and signed. The land is protected.

Surrounding the pyre, a number of campfires for warmth and comfort. And to ignite the torches. Watch! The gathering points of quavering flickering light; watch as friends, family, and strangers gather around and trade casual greetings that may or may not turn into budding friendships. Watch as this whole thing comes together in the form of ceremony, one created thousands of years ago, one created by humans to set us apart from the other animals, one that transcends traditions and dogmas and cultures. Treatment of the dead. What a philosophical concept. But that doesn’t matter—just watch. Over, under, around, and through: my presence is here, there, everywhere, in you. Open up to it. Let it absorb you, and let it flow from you. However I have impacted your life—bring it here and share it round. Strengthen my collective spirit, bond all the bits and pieces stored in the memories of everyone gathered here until I am recreated, until it’s like I’m standing among you, joining in.

Vats of cider, casks of wine, barrels of whiskey, jars of water—anything you might want is there for the taking. This is a stone-soup affair. Loaves and fishes. A potluck. The miracle of sharing is that there was always enough to go around. It’s just a matter of defeating ownership. And the food…!

Oh, the food. If you didn’t bring a dish, find someone who did and thank him or her. Anyone who leaves hungry is a fool. Anyone who leaves thirsty—a churl. Anyone who leaves upset missed the point.

All my favorite foods; deviled eggs, smoked ham, beef wellington, ribs, burgers, salads, fruit, cakes, quesadillas, soft cookies, brisket, pancakes, latkes, cheeses, oysters, sardines, soup, roasted vegetables, steak, duck, lamb—you name it, I loved it, so throw in some salt and add to the feast.

This is a day of celebration. With any luck it’s a cool fall day. But that doesn’t matter. My favorite day was always today. Plenty to do, plenty to see, and always always always plenty to learn. If you learned nothing today, you weren’t paying attention. Don’t do that.

As the sun sets, shadows stretch over this hill, and the breeze dwindles. Now’s the time. Feel it. It just seems right.

A hush settles, and someone unappointed grabs the first torch. Maybe you, maybe someone else. The low murmurs diminish, and everyone watches as the ball of firelight arcs toward the heap of tinder. There’s a moment of silence as the next crackling torch is lifted from a campfire and brought toward the pyre.

Then one by one, torches are thrust into the brush pile, with maybe a few words spoken, a knickknack or trinket tossed in, a silent personal prayer or mantra or consideration. The whole affair unfurls in a blaze as people step back from the heat. Sparks flee skyward, and my body is illuminated and engulfed by the inferno.

After a while the conversations resume amid the smell of pine and juniper and oak and cherry and walnut and maple and apple and mahogany all working to overpower the harsh aroma of a dear loved one cooking—but all I can smell is a rare steak slowly being overdone. I’ve always wanted to try human. Just for the experience.

The festivities commence in earnest, and I join in, lifting my arms in muscle-spasm splendor, enjoying the heat and conducting a symphony of stars and sparks. Raise your voices to drown out the disconcerting sputter of flesh! Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you probably have to go to work.

I cannot begin to guess what goes on between everyone as the small hours roll past and the pyre dwindles to coals, embers, cinders, and ash. It will be tragic to miss out on so many stories and connections—but they’re all saved in the collective network of our shared human experiences. Lovers past and present—share stories! Trade anecdotes. Hell, even criticize. Don’t stand on ceremony: live it up.

Someone self-appointed will stay on hand after the fire has faded to a safe dawn-colored mass, adding cold water to make a rich mud. A willow sapling, root ball wrapped in burlap, waits at the edge of the hill, shivering slightly in the morning air.

Someone self-appointed will transplant the sapling into the warm ash, planting the next saga, letting life carry on. This consciousness is shared; man, bird, tree, dinosaur, rock, and sky—all the same stuff. Experience stretches through history. Experience is evolution.

Someone self-appointed has the most important job in all this. Cherish it. But do not allow self-righteousness to seep in. Because though important to my own carry-on ideal, your task doesn’t really matter in the long run either. Everything has a life span. People, families, species, languages—even life itself.

That said, you better plant that weeping willow, and come water it until it’s self-sustaining and entrenched. Otherwise I’ll have a hard time adjusting, and I’ll be sure to haunt you forever in the form of your nagging conscience. So make sure I’m good and independent. Just as I was. Just as I am. Just as I shall be.

the middle